Davos Sees Challenges, ‘Smart Cities’ Seize Opportunities: Finding Sustainable Solutions Via Public-Private Dialogue

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As the world’s policymakers and business leaders converge in Davos, Switzerland for tomorrow’s opening of the World Economic Forum, there’s certainly no shortage of global threats for them to worry about during the WEF’s annual marathon of policy seminars and economic debates. A world of anxiety enshrouds this week’s conference theme of the “New Global Context,” judging by the WEF’s latest Global Risks Report: Its analysis of 28 urgent threats and 13 ominous long-term trends offers a comprehensive catalogue of extreme dangers to social stability and even human survival.

As if the Davos data isn’t worrisome enough, several just-issued scientific studies – which document worsening trends in climate change, humanity’s imminent collision with the limits of the planet’s resilience and the intensifying damage being wrought by voracious consumption-driven growth – trace a relentlessly gloomy trajectory.

Relieving some of the substantive tension, there’s also often a puckish undercurrent within each year’s Davos news coverage. Poking holes in the self-importance of Davos’ CEOs and celebrities – with varying degrees of lighthearted humor or reproachful reproof – has become a cottage industry, springing up every January to chide the mountaintop follies of “the great and the good.” Skeptics often scoff that the lofty pronouncements of Davos Deepthink have become almost a caricature of elite self-importance, and there’ll surely be plenty of the customary sniping at the insularity of Davos Man and at the insouciance of the globalized jet set as its over-refined One Percent folkways become ever more detached from the struggles of the stagnating middle class and desperate working poor.

Despite such Davos-season misgivings, it’s worth recalling the value of such frequent, fact-based knowledge-exchange events and inclusive dialogues among business leaders and thought leaders. Some of the Davos Set may revel in after-hours excess – its Lucullan cocktail-party scene is legendary – yet the substantive centerpiece of such meetings remains a valuable venue for expert-level policy debates, allowing scholars to inject their ideas straight into the bloodstream of corporate strategy-setting. The global policy debate arguably needs more, not fewer, thought-provoking symposia where decision-makers can be swayed by the latest thinking of the world’s academic and social-sector experts. Judging by the fragmented response to the chronic economic downturn by the global policymaking class, every multilateral institution ought to host continuing consultations to help shape a coherent policy agenda.

Focusing on just one area where in-depth know-how can serve the needs of decision-makers: The World Bank Group has long been tailoring world-class knowledge to deliver local solutions to client countries about one of the trends singled out in this year's WEF list of long-term concerns – the worldwide shift from “predominantly rural to urban living.” The biggest mass migration in human history has now concentrated more than 50 percent of the world’s population in cities, leading this year’s Global Risks Report to assert that the risk of failed urban planning is among the top global concerns.

“Without doubt, urbanization has increased social well-being,” commented one WEF trend-watcher. “But when cities develop too rapidly, their vulnerability increases: pandemics; breakdowns of or attacks on power, water or transport systems; and the effects of climate change are all major threats.”

Yet consider, also, the potential opportunities within the process of managing that trend toward ever-more-intense urban concentration. What if the prospect of chaotic urbanization were able to inspire greater city-management creativity – so that urban ingenuity makes successful urbanization a means to surmount other looming dangers?

For an example of the can-do determination and trademark optimism of the development community – with the world’s urbanization trend as its focus – consider the upbeat tone that pervaded a conference last week at the World Bank’s Preston Auditorium, analyzing “Smart Cities for Shared Prosperity.” With more than 850 participants in-person, and with viewers in 92 countries watching via livestream, the conference – co-sponsored by the World Resources Institute (WRI), Embarq, and the Transport and Information & Communications Technology (TICT) Global Practice of the World Bank Group – energized the world’s leading practitioners and scholars across the wide range of transportation-related, urban-focused, environment-conscious priorities.

(Thinking of the Preston gathering’s Davos-season timing and full-spectrum scope: It sometimes strikes me that – given the continuous procession of presidents, professors, poets and pundits at the Preston podium – there could be a tagline beneath Preston's entryway, suggesting that the Bank Group swirl of ideas feels like “Davos Every Day.”)

Amid its focus on building “smart cities” and strengthening urban sustainability, the annual Transforming Transportation conference took the “smart cities” concept beyond its customary focus on analyzing Big Data and deploying the latest technology-enabled metrics. By investing in “smart” urban design – and, above all, by putting people rather than automobiles at the center of city life – the scholars insisted that society can reclaim its urban destiny from the car-centric, carbon-intensive pattern that now chokes the livability of all too many cities.

The fast-forward series of “smart cities” speeches and seminars reinforced the agenda summarized by TICT Senior Director Pierre Guislain and WRI official Ani Dasgupta – formerly of the Bank Group and now the global director of WRI’s Ross Center on Sustainable Cities – in an Op-Ed commentary for Thomson Reuters: “We can either continue to build car-oriented cities that lock in unsustainable patterns, or we can scale up existing models for creating more inclusive, accessible and connected cities. Pursuing smarter urban mobility options can help growing cities leapfrog car-centric development and adopt strategies that boost inclusive economic growth and improve [the] quality of life.”

Managing urbanization wisely, and optimizing city-level productivity, will be pivotal in achieving the goals of all three of the major global forums that will convene this year: the conference in New York in June to adopt a new set of Sustainable Development Goals; the forum in Addis Ababa in July to align the post-2015 framework for financing development; and the final treaty negotiations in Paris in December to adopt a new global anti-climate-change pact. City-level action to promote sustainability, livability, productivity and competitiveness thus must be atop the world's development agenda.

The private sector’s creative role in shaping the urban future was showcased in a "smart cities" conference panel on “Competitive Cities: Improving Urban Logistics Networks.” Ensuring that people and freight can navigate crowded city streets is a test of every planner’s skill – but panel moderator Sophie Punte of the Smart Freight Center in the Netherlands assured the seminar, “The solutions are out there: The challenge is, they’re not taken to scale.” Explaining how the public sector can carry out an indispensable coordinating function – as the convener of a civic dialogue, the facilitator of infrastructure planning and a mobilizer of funding – Pex Langenberg, the Vice Mayor of Rotterdam, described how creating car-free zones and low-emissions zones have helped reduce air pollution around Europe’s largest seaport, and how prioritizing bicycle use and alternatives to automobiles have helped ease urban congestion.

The panel’s executives from logistics and freight-delivery firms explained how, in many cities, technology-enabled route-planning helps trucks avoid traffic jams and speed the delivery of packages – and how the creation of a network of small freight-dropoff points, just outside the crowded urban core, allows packages for inner-city delivery to go “the last mile” via small clean-energy vehicles and motorcycles rather than by full-size trucks. Such agile positioning has proven to be a time-saver for customers and a cost-saver for the firms – showing how efficiency-minded planning can lead to less traffic, less fuel waste, reduced air pollution and lower costs. Joint public-private decision-making about creating the dropoff-point network showed how deft urban design can meet the efficiency needs of private-sector firms, helping achieve positive civic goals while enlisting business as an energetic driver of city-level change.

“We have to collaborate – not because we’re ‘good guys’ but because we’re losing money” when inefficiencies impose a cost on operations, said one logistics planner, in a succinct summation of the “enlightened self-interest” approach. Wise government agencies, through a dialogue with industry, can achieve their civic goals through nimble urban planning that inspires the private sector to recognize and minimize inefficiencies – because, after all, “you don’t have to enforce [a standard] that’s good for business.”

Creating public-private dialogues that help advance both the private sector’s quest for efficiency and the public sector’s inclusive civic agenda can inspire win-win situations that quicken the ingenuity of business, promote positive civic outcomes and spur the dynamism of a growing economy. Forums that inspire public-private collaboration sans frontières – whether at a rarefied mountaintop retreat like Davos or at a vibrant policy crossroads like the Bank Group’s Preston stage – can help cross-pollinate practical policy knowledge while building a stronger cross-border economic sensibility.



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